Thursday, 23 June 2011

Golden Memories

Amritsar - Punjab

We arrived in Amritsar feeling surprisingly fresh and lively after our night train with the Canadians; Michael and David. We took an instant shine to the city, and wondered why the guide book had painted such a bleak picture of the city. The Punjabi people were most welcoming, and Guy was enrolled in a game of cricket before we had even found a guesthouse. Unfortunatly, he soon found that playing cricket with these boys was unlike that of playing with the kids of Hampi Childrens Trust, and the days of scoring 6 were over, indeed he was bowled out on the third ball! Emma was a hit with the punjabi males, attracting much attention so much so that one cycle rickshaw spent so long staring back at her that he crashed into another rickshaw!  

Golden Temple harmandir

The main reason that tourists travel to Amritsar is to visit the fantastic Golden Temple - centre to the Sikh faith. It is hard to describe the feelings we had as we put on our headscarves, washed our feet and walked through the magnificent white marble archway to be greated with the most spectacular sight of the temple. Set amid a rectangular pool of holy water surrounded by marble mosaic walls of the complex. It was a busy temple, but unlike the Hindu temples that we have visited, it was calm and relaxed and welcoming. Every Sikh should make at least one pilgramage to the temple in their lifetime, many spend days visiting the temple to pray and spend nights in the free accommodation of the temple. We found a quiet spot to sit and watch temple life pass us by; men bathing in the water (females had to bathe privately), people eating together at the communal canteen and queuing to enter the Harmandir.

Children of the welcoming Sikh family

We were welcomed by smiles and conversations with Sikh families, one family in particular were very excited to give us a whole tour of the temple complex. It seemed they wanted us to stay forever. Eager to learn more about the Sikh faith, we read the guide to find out more about these surprisingly welcoming people. Their ethos is admirable: No prejudice of any religion, colour or caste, they treat all people as equals. 

Dharamasala - Himachal Pradesh

After two days in Amritsar we took a government bus for 8 hours to Dharamasala in Himachal Pradesh. We then climbed 1000m in altitude to stay in Dharamkot, escaping the hustle of Mcleod Ganj - the main traveller hub; a confusing mixture of Tibetan monks, markets, neon lights and clubs. On our midnight arrival, the town was a far cry from expectations of a Buddhist town inhabited by the auspicious Dalai Lama. As we hiked up the valley that evening, we witnessed the annual Miss Tibet competition in full party swing! The region of Dharamasala consists of predominantly Tibetan people in exile along with many Nepali people. Indeed the Tibetan government in exile operates from this hillstation.

Beautiful views from high in the mountains

By morning we were awarded breathtaking views of the mountains overshadowing the town. Thick with forests, revealing monastries amid swirling clouds, the trees are strung with thousands of prayer flags and winding paths lead to remote buildings on steep valley walls. We took a short trek with our friends, new and old, to a nearby waterfall. The alpine water was near freezing, but we couldn't resist a swim in the beautiful tumbling pools, and were soon addicted to the exhilarating feeling in the water and the cleansed body and soul.

Pleasure or Pain?

The European climate is a major attraction to this town, no less than the second wettest place in India. We were treated to a daily downpour of such magnitude as to shame the fiercest of British storms, pelting great hailstones with a deafening roar upon the tin roofs.

Overlooking the Dalai Lama's abode (green roof on the distant hill)

Many westerners make a long stay in Dharamasala, as a result there are many activities to learn; yoga, massage, reiki etc, however we opted for less strenuous jewellery making workshops. Guy has enjoyed silversmith work, and Emma went for mala and macrame courses. We both have made some fine articles and invested in some materials to continue our work.

Emma's macrame and mala Jewellery showcase

Guy working with the Silversmith and Pia

There are many trekking possibilities in the Himalayan region surrounding the town. Unfortunately Emma was struck down with illness again (flu this time) and wasn't fit enough to trek. So Guy took the opportunity to enjoy a spot of fellrunning, reaching the snowline and back in 6 hours and gaining 1000m, a trek that most people spread over two days with an overnight stop at basecamp.

Guy (self portrait) at the snowy cloudy glaciery bit

Looking down the valley in the clouds on the descent

In Dharamkot we experienced our first fantastic sleeps in India; perfect cool climate, no noisy fans and no traffic. We knew that it would be hard to leave this wonderful, relaxing town, and very well may not have done. However, after two weeks and some influence from Pia and Ina, we booked transport to our next destination; Kashmir.

Bonus Pics

This fighter jet shaped moth reminded us of both of our lovely fathers

'PIG DOG' had eaten too many pizzas at the family pizzaria. He is a photographic slimming pill for any weight conscious lady!

The worlds most racist chocolate bar made Guy cry, and tasted like distant fish. Contact Sami - could this be the uber-snack?

Bonus passage: Guy wanted to entitle this blog entry as 'Golden Showers' due to the Golden Temple and the rain in Dharamasala. But Emma deemed it "too rude".

Saturday, 4 June 2011

Highs & Lows

Delhi to Uttarakhand
6000m Himalayan peaks above Gangotori

After leaving Hampi we took a cheeky flight from Hyderabad to Delhi, avoiding a 27 hour train. We spent 5 days in Delhi, and were surprised to find a well organised and clean city, with beautiful parks and quiet streets. It was a welcome relief following the bustle of all other cities we have visited so far. In particular we enjoyed the planetarium, Lodi Gardens and the immaculate, British built New Delhi. There was also the most efficient Metro service we have ever seen, built for the commonwealth games in 2010. However, despite the pleasent areas of the city it was 45C hot in the daytimes, and little less at night. By far the hottest place we have ever been.

 India Gate - New Delhi

From Delhi we travelled north to Rishikesh - The spiritual home of yoga and guru's. It is beautifully situated at the foothills of the Himalaya, and is considered a holy town due to it's location on the river Ganges. Many Hindu pilgrims make their way here to live at Ashrams and bathe in the surprisingly cold and turbulent waters of the mighty Ganga.

 Hindu pilgrims bathing in the Ganga

There are two famous suspension foot bridges here, high over the river. We use the term "footbridge" loosely, hugely busy with pedestrians, motorbikes, cows and disturbing evil monkeys, these overloaded bridges sway sickeningly in the wind and cause 5 minute post-bridge nausea. Needless to say we had a terrifying experience in a storm. We had dinner on the opposite side of the bridge when another giant Indian storm brewed, and we knew that we had to cross to swaying, 100ft bridge it in howling gales and blinding lightning. We had to literally cling on to avoid being blown off and Emma had a big cry.

The infamous bridge in Rishikesh

Emma spent a few days of morning yoga, but soon after we both became ill with the apres "Delhi-Belly". So we spent a few days in our room recovering and reading. Emma has been studying Ashtanga yoga from the bed, and Guy has nearly finished the 5th Harry Potter! The landlady was so homely, and gave us aryuvedic medicine and cooked kichiri, nusring us to health.

Feeling well enough to venture outside, we spent a lovely day at some crystal clear waterfalls feeding the Ganga, took a mountain shower and decided we were better. Following a Ganga tributary uphill, we came across a range of beautiful flora, and some scary forna. Emma found the path lined with blossoming Budleigh and thought of "Mon-Papa" and we got scared by the monkeys; if you look them in the eye they bear teeth, and pump up and down - occasionally pretending to pounce on you. We could really do without a monkey bite!
 After the rain, the smell was like Mon-Papa's Butterfly house

There are some wonderful tropical birds here, and walking through the damp jungles, their other-worldly calls and cries give a jurrassic park-esque adventure sensation. The trees in the North of India have become familiar deciduous forests, with the addition of hanging vines and moisture absorbing lichins. Another plant native to this area is that of the cannibis and hemp plant. We now understand where the common name "ganga" stems, as it grows in the hills surrounding the vally of the river Ganges - known to Indians as the river Ganga.

Guy "healing" in waterfall near Rishikesh

That evening we met Michael and David, two doctors from Canada. They inspired us to join them at 05:00 next morning to embark on a trek to Gomuk - the glacier source of the Ganges. So we hurridly packed our trekking packs, leaving heavy items with the lovely landlady and took the most trecherous ride in a jeep. For 12 ridiculous hours we bumped, clattered and flew up the Himalayas of Uttarakhand, with respite only when a landslide had brought several buildings into the road! It was an unbelievable journey, with vast chasms inches from the tyre as we squeezed past busses, sheep and boulders. The main thing on our mind was knowing we would have to return the same way!

 This landslide caused at least an hour delay

Herd blocking the road - Emma loved the brown face one with the fringe

We passed through many inspiring mountain villages, hanging with Tibetan prayer flags and built hanging off huge cliffs. The terraces among the hills were a beautiful sight, and each small terrace was a miniture farm in a mountain side, to support the many small communities built up on the impossible slopes. Finally we reached the Hindu pilgrimage site of Gangotri, only accessible for 6 months of the year in summer. It was at an altitude of around 3000m and for the first time, we put on several layers and shivered ourselves to sleep in a little freezing room.

Gangotori - Uttarakhand

The boys woke us at 06:00 am and the trek up the mountains began. Following the river through the deep V-shape canyon we hauled up over 14 km and gained 1000m in altitude. We were all feeling the effects of the height - with headaches and shallow breathing causing difficulty. But all along, tantalising glimpses of mighty, huge 7000m snowcapped peaks of the worlds greatest mountain range kept us trekking to the basecamp.
 David, Michael and Emma hiking up the mountain pass

 Crossing the sketchy bridges over ice cold streams

Guy trekking among 6000m + Himalaya peaks

Basecamp -A very welcome sight

We spent a well earned night beneath clear skies of a million stars in a tent with many blankets, and rested through to the morning where we all felt more acclimatised to the altitude.

 Our cosy basecamp tent with David and Michael

At 05:00 we embarked upon a 4km trek to the Glacier of Gomuk. Wearing every layer from our bags we trudged shrough the sleet and snow along with scantily clad pilgrims (Orange-Men) to the highly holy and dissappointingly bland muddy glacier. Unfortunately one km from the glacier snout, Emma had another bout of the Rishi-Belly and we made the urgent trip down the mountain - Thus the high and the low begun - 4000m emergency!

Gomuk glacier - one of the holiest places in the world. Not such a pretty face!

Orange Men - Sadhu on a pilgrimage

Emma should be commended as we made it 22km down the mountain in cold wet weather to Gangotri, stopping only for "emergency poos". The majority of tourists, Indian or western hire a mountain guide and a sherpa brings their equipment. Some really lazy ones even get a donkey plus sherpa. We were proud to carry all our gear, and still overtook the slow wheezing unfitties! However we are no match for the incredible sherpas - effortlessly carrying enormous loads, hauling it up at great speed with a strap around their forehead! Michael decided that if you took 1x sherpa and taught him to ride a bike - you would result in a Tour-De-France champion! I can well believe it too.

Any guesses as to what this sherpa is hauling up the mountain?

Upon reaching the town we learned that there is no place to stay with either hot water or heating, and took the group descision to return to the jeep for another 6 hour ride through the dark to Utterakashi where a warm room could be found. It felt like one of the longest days of our life. The medical advice from Michael and David helped us both, prescribing Emma antibiotics and helping with Guy's septic foot. Thanks dudes! While all we could dream of was a relaxing day off - the extreme Canadians were at it again, waking us early for the trecherous second half of the jeep journey to Haridwar, and when we thought it couldnt get any worse, an immediate night train to Amritsar - the next leg of the journey to Dharamasala, home of the Dalai Lama in the Himachal Pradesh. We experienced a new class of train travel - pay for two seats and get just one on a fully booked train - such is the surprising way of all things in this country. Well at least we have finally had a day off, and found time to do the blog (It has taken 4 internet cafe's and about 7 hours to complete due to Indias unreliable electrical and internet connections)! The antibiotics seem to be working for Emma, and Guy's foot abcess is healing.

Bonus pictures, as usual: More on our Flickr page; namasteindia2011

Present, Past, Future machine - Obviously. Guy got hassled for using it and we ran away!

Incredible clouds above Rishikesh - Dad - please consult the book and let us know what this formation is called.